At a crowded town hall meeting this past January in Eldorado, Stephen Easley, a newly-elected Democratic state representative, was gearing up for his first legislative session. He spoke to a largely liberal, graying, Anglo crowd about his plans as a lawmaker.
“I’ve tried to convey to you a little bit tonight the fact that I’m passionate about some topics, and I hope to do the right thing,” Easley, an outspoken, husky man in his early 60s, told the audience. “And if I have to vote against my party every now and then, I will do that.”
Easley expressed his plans to introduce gun control legislation—an issue likely to resonate with residents in Eldorado, a bedroom community southeast of Santa Fe. But he also spoke of his desire to desalinate the water below the Estancia basin, an issue inclined to be on the minds of his more conservative rancher constituents south of Eldorado.
The contrast was illustrative of the balancing act Easley needed to play in order to appeal to constituents in one of the state’s more diverse districts.
Near the end of the town hall meeting, he made an eery prediction about how long the job would last [SFReporter.com, Aug. 18: “Freshman Lawmaker Stephen Easley Dies”].
“I’m not really there to be in a career in the Legislature,” he said. “I don’t have time. I’m 60 years old already, so, I mean, how many more years do I have to be in the Legislature? I can’t make a 30-year career out of this. So I’m going to do anything I need to do, and do it now and do it quickly. And I will. And I intend to be fairly noisy and outspoken if I must.”
Still, when Easley died suddenly this month from what friends and family say were complications from an infection, it sent shockwaves through political circles and left uncertainty about the future of a district with a complicated political identity.
Last year, the state Legislature redrew House District 50 to include Eldorado, a community with about 6,000 residents. It’s roughly 94 percent white (though 12 percent identify as Hispanic) with a median household income of $82,000 and an average age of 55.
Research & Polling, Inc. President Brian Sanderoff says Eldorado has its share of progressive voters. While the suburb certainly doesn’t make up the majority of the district, which has more than 29,000 residents, it is still the district’s most populous area.
“It was beneficial for us that Stephen happened to live in Eldorado,” Drew Prestridge, Easley’s former campaign manager, tells SFR. “It’s the most densely populated part of the district and where our Democratic base was.”
But geographically, the district is one of the largest in the state, encompassing around 110 square miles. In the general election, Easley won Eldorado by a two-to-one margin, but he narrowly lost Valencia County with 47 percent of votes, and lost the Republican stronghold of Torrance County by a wide margin.
Now, with Easley gone, the four county commissions represented by House District 50—Santa Fe, Torrance, Valencia and Bernalillo—will each recommend a new candidate to replace him. Then, Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican, makes the final decision.
The Bernalillo County Commission planned to discuss the matter Tuesday evening. Santa Fe County, meanwhile, is waiting for directions on the appointment process from the governor’s office, county Office Manager Jennifer Jaramillo tells SFR.
House District 50 is both politically and geographically all over the map. Santa Fe County Democratic Party Chairman Richard Ellenberg calls it “very schizophrenic.” Both the Valencia and Torrance commissions are dominated by Republicans, while Santa Fe and Bernalillo commissions are majority Democrat.
Each commission’s recommended successors to Easley will leave Martinez with a big decision—whether to appoint a conservative Republican to have as an ally in the short term or a more moderate politician who has a shot at keeping the district in the long term.
“The governor has to decide if she’s playing through the next session,” Sanderoff tells SFR, referring to the 2014 Legislative session that begins in January.
Elections for the seat will begin with primaries the following June and a general election in November.
Martinez hasn’t been afraid to appoint non-Republicans to vacant positions like this in the past. When Jerome Block Jr. resigned from the Public Regulation Commission in 2011, for instance, Martinez named Doug Howe to fill his shoes. Howe, an Independent at the time, later changed his registration to Democrat.
But there will be pressure to appoint someone on her side. A Republican successor would make the GOP one vote closer to the ultimate goal of taking the House, something that hasn’t been done in more than a half-century. Currently, the state House of Representatives sits at a 38-32 Democrat majority.
Republican strategist Bob Cornelius, CEO of Albuquerque-based 90 Degrees Agency, says Martinez has nothing to lose in appointing a Republican.
“If she appoints a Democrat, all it does is make Republicans mad,” he says. “And the Democrats are going to be mad no matter what.”
Cornelius says he’s heard two GOP names floated as potential successors—Moriarty Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Debbie Ortiz and Torrance County Commissioner Leanne Tapia. Neither returned SFR’s calls and emails before press time.
And just as Eldorado’s voting population shouldn’t be underestimated, it also shouldn’t be overestimated. If multiple Democrats from Eldorado decide to run in the 2014 primary, for example, the situation could make way for a more conservative Democrat from the southern part of the district to take hold, Sanderoff says.
“Whether Eldorado is able to elect one of their own again will depend on who gets into the race and splits the vote,” he says.
Before the district included Eldorado, Rhonda King, a rancher and conservative Democrat, represented it for 14 years. Her name recognition—Rhonda is the niece of former Gov. Bruce King and the cousin of Attorney General Gary King—and moderate stance made her successful in elections.
King’s name has also surfaced for the nomination, according to Cornelius. She says she’s flattered to be considered again, and underlines that the diversity of the district makes it challenging.
“I have been a Democrat and that’s how I’ve represented the district,” King says. “But I do also believe that once you’re elected, you’re not the Democrat, Republican, Independent—you’re the representative of that district.”
Sanderoff adds that whoever serves next has a large task ahead.
“Anyone who gets elected from that district better get a new set of tires and be responsible for the diversity of needs, from suburban progressive communities to ranching, farming and drought,” he says.
UPDATED: After press time, Martinez spokesman Enrique Knell emailed SFR the following statement:
"As she does with all nominations, the Governor will look for the most qualified candidate to serve and represent this district."